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Misrepresenting women

Published Sep 16, 2012 09:00pm


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RECENTLY I hosted a screening of the documentary Miss Representation at The Second Floor in Karachi. The documentary, written and produced by American filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, shows how the misrepresentation of women in the American media — television, film, music videos, news channels — leads to their being underrepresented in positions of power.

It’s a hard-hitting, eye-opening examination of how women are shown as sexual objects in media which is consumed 24 hours a day by children, teenagers, and young adults — and how this teaches them that women are valuable not for their achievements and intelligence, but for their looks, youth and beauty.

I believe that it was important to screen this movie in Pakistan even though it concentrated on the American media. American media is a globalised phenomenon; it influences and affects populations in Japan, in Africa, in South America, and here in South Asia. In each of these places, young people know what McDonald’s is, and who Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber are. America’s largest export is not its products, but its culture. So the film has huge relevance for our audience in Pakistan.

Second, representations of women in the Pakistani media are as poor as they are in American media. “You can’t be what you can’t see” is one of the key phrases in Miss Representation, and when Pakistani women in advertisements are relegated to caring for children, washing clothes and preparing food, our girls and young women learn fast that this is all that’s expected of them in our society. Our television dramas have direct influence on how women in power are perceived in our country — career women with independent earning power are seen as ambitious, immoral, bitter women, while homemakers dependent on their husbands’ salaries are portrayed as good, desirable, honourable.

Miss Representation showed how body dissatisfaction in women leads to eating disorders, depression and anxiety, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. Pakistani women are as insecure about their looks as American women, and while in America this obsession takes the shape of wearing revealing clothing and getting nose jobs, Pakistani women worry about whether they’re wearing enough clothing, if they have too much facial hair and how white their skin is; advertisers take full advantage of this insecurity to sell them hair-removal and skin-whitening creams. The mental health of Pakistani girls and women is not as important as corporations making money, and the media is fully complicit in shortchanging them in every sense of the word.

Disempowering women through media leads to their being underrepresented in the corridors of power: the film contains hard-hitting statistics and testimony from powerful women in politics, media, and academia about this phenomenon: Geena Davis, Condoleeza Rice, Rachel Maddow, and Jane Fonda all appear in the documentary to talk about the need to see positive media portrayals of women in power.

But then conservative news anchors and mainstream news programmes are shown leading a powerful backlash against the advancement of women in politics in a gut-wrenching montage of clips where powerful women politicians like Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Dianne Feinstein and Madeline Albright were abused, diminished to their hairstyles and body parts, and castigated for being nagging, emasculating harpies and shrews.

In Pakistan, a similar portrayal of women in power takes place in our media. Female politicians are evaluated not for their accomplishments and achievements, but for their youth and looks. Take the example of Hina Rabbani Khar, who is celebrated for being Pakistan’s ‘youngest’ female foreign minister, and her sunglasses and handbags are discussed more incisively than her activities as Pakistan’s highest-ranked foreign diplomat.

Turn on any talk show at night and you will see two female politicians set against each other in a catfight, perpetuating the idea that women in power seek to compete against each other for the titillation of male viewers. And there’s no debate about whether or not Pakistani women can hold down a job and be a good mother at the same time; the media, with dramas like Humsafar, has already condemned career women as incapable of being good women, let alone good mothers or good family members.

There’s no doubt that how the Pakistani media portrays women hurts and demeans us, or that Pakistani girls and young women are being severely affected by what they see on television, in movies, and even in video games. What may not be so apparent, however, is how much these negative portrayals are affecting boys, teenagers and young men.

Without even being aware of it, young men are accepting the idea that women exist only as sexual objects, that it is acceptable to be hostile towards women both in thought and in action, and that if you do not go along with this, you are not a proper man.

Two teenage boys in the audience at the screening spoke out eloquently about how, if they try to speak out against the misrepresentation of women in the media, they are effectively silenced by their peers with the two words no boy wants to hear: “You’re gay.”

But things can change if we want them to. There is a dire need for policymakers to set standards for how women and girls are portrayed in the media and in advertising. Stereotypes, not gender parity, sells products, so we have to become aware of the media’s strong ties to advertising dollars (rupees) — and then put our money into products, services and entertainment that portray women as equals, not second-class citizens. As responsible consumers of media, we must urge advertisers and media makers to stop perpetuating stereotypes, cementing women into boxes that grow narrower and narrower with each passing year.

The writer is the author of Slum Child.


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Bina Shah is a writer and columnist in Karachi; she is the author of the novel Slum Child and A Season for Martyrs.

She tweets @binashah

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (11) Closed

Ali Sep 17, 2012 11:53pm
There is a dire need for policymakers to set standards for how women and girls are portrayed in the media and in advertising. Look at this sentence in the article shedding light on the knowledge, naivety and haplesness of the writer.who will be the policymakers and from where the standards will be taken she didn't mention(USA and west is out as they are shown in Miss Representation not doing justice to their women )So we have to take into account solid scientific and social facts to to derive a policy and set standards.History has shown that whenever groups of human tried to formulate a policy in these matters,they swayed from one extreme to the other.In today's world everything is business and profit, doesn't matter at what cost.hence there is exploitation of women even in the so called modern, advanced societies and countries. So what is the solution.Do we human have the capacity and capability to formulate a balanced and just policy. History proves not since we are not creator of ourselves and we don't have enough knowledge to fully understand the needs of either sex. Therefore. We have to rely on Divine source but there is confusion on which is truly a divine source.The solution to this is to test all divine sources. For proven scientific facts .the Source which stand this test will be the source to select as the basis for policy and standard making and hence will do the justice to the women.If we let people formulate standards then we know they have vested interests and want to make profits which will lead to a tilted policy and standards
Anoosh Khan Sep 18, 2012 02:21am
Good argument. However, I feel women in media, in the executive positions (if at all) and the women who portray the "misrepresented" versions of Pakistani (or any other) femininity should also put their foot down and refuse to portray such images.
Someone Sep 17, 2012 10:09am
Brilliant piece...thanks for this well thought out article. I hope those incharge of mass-communication (via media) start thinking like you
Muhammad Yaqub Sep 17, 2012 08:46am
What do you mean by women as equals ! It is exactly this that creates the problem. God has created women for a special purpose. That purpose is holy and divine. No man can be a Mother and no Women can be a Father. So please do not talk about equal rights as a general statement. Yes Women and Men have equal rights as Human Beings, i.e. right to education, health, ownership of property, right to work, right to a family, right to religion etc. However, women have special rights as Mothers, Wives, Sisters and Daughters. These are extra rights and no women should be stripped of these. Cultures and Religions which follow these principals, respect their women more than those who profess equal rights for women.
Nobody Sep 17, 2012 06:09am
Wonderful write up and I agree, it should be shown to other audiences as well. However, I have to disagree on some points (more with the film content itself, not necessarily with your point). The picture painted makes it seem as if ALLLL women in the US are shown as nothing more and nobody takes them seriously, which is simply not true. There is another side to the coin as well. Places where women are shown as intelligent, independent and the focus is not on how they look, more on what they do/contribute. This needs to become more frequent and more so aimed at the younger audience early in their development. It's also a task for parents on an individual level to negate the unhealthy stereotypes thrown around by the media and encourage the progressive, healthy images.
Shakeel Ghouri Sep 17, 2012 09:52am
Indeed man and woman are more similar to each other in many respects than they are different. So, the stereotypes which have grown in centuries among different cultures are the production of human interpretations about both. In this modern age, woman should be given equal opportunities and bizarre advertisements which disparage the status of woman should carefully be terminated by a rational policy. This will surely be a step towards empowering women, providing them their rights and thus making Pakistan prosperous.
Bloodrose Sep 17, 2012 02:44am
Awesome article, you have managed to write out my thoughts word for word, thank you Hopefully this article will be read by more females and males and perhaps in a few years issues like this will be discussed and action will be taken to change the image of females in our society
ahmed41 Sep 17, 2012 03:57am
"---But things can change if we want them to :--" That's it.
p r sharma Sep 17, 2012 04:20am
@ Author : "As responsible consumers of media, we must urge advertisers and media makers to stop perpetuating stereotypes, cementing women into boxes that grow narrower and narrower with each passing year." i agree with the contents of the article but ; the advertisement is aimed for achieving a particular goal i.e. to make the product depicted therein acceptable (say popular) by the general people or the targeted consumers / buyers.. So all cosmetic and utility products are bound to be filled with female. Even for unrelated products in the show business / Electronic or print medium glamour is essential to make it appealing to men and glamour is attached more with females. This is a purely commercial activities for profit and will continue to display what is accepted in the society to achieve their goal.
AHA Sep 17, 2012 05:11pm
I fully agree. Can you please let me know of one society, in the present time, which gives righst to women that are at least equal to the rights it gives to men.
Taaruf Sep 17, 2012 03:14pm
Awsomly superb! Ditto! Media men have tried to strive for their vested intrests. They never bother to think of later consequences of an advertisment which they wish to highlight. In fact media has helped society to misrepresent women and shown them an as object of sheer dependency on their male members. God has ordained in the holy Quran that man and woman are equql in society. At some points women are priortized over men. I wish many male members would go thru this peice of writing and think about the reality which they disown.